by Michael Midwood
“This is the worst part of every train ride.” Steve blurted disjointedly as he and Jenna walked off the train and into Penn Station. “You have to put so much faith into that step. An inch short and you’re down in the tracks. Too slow, and those doors will slice you in half.”
“It’s just a step, Steven.” Jenna replied in feigned cockiness.
Steve turned his head slightly away from her and grinned enormously. A few weeks ago, Jenna had heard his mother call him Steven (which was exceedingly uncommon, even for his mother) and she had vowed to refer to him as such from that moment forward. Steve had always been what he had gone by because he loathed the formality and indication of adulthood that his personal insanity had perceived in that additional letter ‘N’. That said, something about the way she said it, something about the way it sounded coming out of her mouth, filled him with an incredible joy. It was no secret to Steve that he had immense feelings toward Jenna, but she was none the wiser. Or at least she didn’t show that she was.
This had been the case since the first day Steve Haltree had met Jenna Miller, about a year and a half ago, just before Steve’s 2011 graduation from their high school. Despite the two year advantage he held on Jenna’s sophomore status, he knew immediately that he had never encountered another person like this. The girl was someone different, which probably would have been the first thing Steve noticed had he not been so wildly attracted to her. Combined with her intellectual brilliance and uncannily similar sense of humor (that is, jokes about Anne Frank and national tragedies), Steve was astounded that a person like this could even be. Yet, the most valuable thing he had found in Jenna, was understanding. This was something that nobody, including himself, had ever been able to provide. He had found it. All the pieces were there.
Sadly, those pieces had never been put together, and Steve found himself in the Big Apple alongside a friend for whom his friendly feelings had never existed. A trip to New York City had been on the agenda for the pair for about a month now, and their arrival in the city was as synchronous as they could have wanted. 5:00PM on the dot; timed to perfection. In more than one sense actually, as the light snowfall of the prior December days had tinted the area a wintry white. With the energy and festivities that one would expect in a major American city just five days before Christmas, Steve had a mind to make a move on Jenna. Or at least say something for Christ’s sake, rather than allow another night to go by where he simply sat on his tongue, muffling the words he wanted to say.
As they moved through the cavernous train station Steve internally reviewed the various plans he and Jenna had made for the night, trying to idealize where he would make his first real advance on her. He had found that being overly analytical was a safe, yet ultimately doomed alternative to actual confidence. The stairs which would lead up into the grounds of Madison Square Garden were quickly upon them, and they started upward with intent. Too much intent it would turn out, as Jenna tripped and fell face first onto the stairs. She had been quick enough to catch her fall and avoid injury, but she certainly had not avoided embarrassment. Steve would not even consider laughing, though he found the concept of someone who struck such fear in him bumbling so gracelessly to be oddly comforting. He grabbed her arm unimposingly and helped lift the girl back to her feet, where she stood as she bestowed upon him humiliated thanks.
“It’s just a step, Jenna”, Steve replied with an almost imperceptible smirk on his face. He felt he was off to a good start.
Excerpt from a series of text messages between Steven Haltree and Jenna Miller (November, 2012)
Jenna: My coworkers have taken to calling you “The Boy Who Makes Jenna Smile”.
Steve: Well, yeah. That’s my official title.
“Not a single fucking M’azing bar! What the fuck kind of M&M Store doesn’t have M’azing bars?”
“Three floors. Zero M’azing bars.” The words trundled dryly out of Steve in response to Jenna’s emphatic query as they exited the disappointment that had been their first destination upon reaching Time Square: The M&M Store.
As expected, nightfall had transformed Time Square into the celebratory hub of the city, interesting for the observer, daunting for the participant. Thrust into the latter role, Steve found himself almost offended by the comical overtness of it all. Not just the brightness, but the motion of the lights, which seemingly covered every inch of surface area, averted his gazes endlessly. The overwhelming noise of all these people he didn’t know having conversations he couldn’t begin to care about formed a nebulous roar of meaninglessness. It was confounding to Steve. He didn’t see the reason for it all.
“Holy shit, you’ve got to be kidding me!” Jenna screeched just moments after the two began down the city street. “Steve, look!”
Past a small eatery pavilion and adjacent to a lavish theater stood the instigator of Jenna’s outburst, and upon seeing it, Steve mirrored her elation. It wasn’t so much that he cared about what he was seeing or any of the events that would unfold as a result, though he did find the coincidence amusing, but he was delighted that Jenna had displayed such excitement at its sight. It was the fact that she could find such jubilance in what was, at the end of the day, a probably very poor and uncomfortable man wearing an objectionably inaccurate body suit done up to resemble the star character of a Shrek spin-off series.
Puss-In-Boots had become something of an iconic figure in Steve’s life since he had met Jenna, even without mentioning the character’s fiery boldness in contrast to his reticent timidity. After failing to see the film together in theaters on a night just over a year prior, the fictional feline became one of many mental triggers that could result in the destruction of a good mood for him. Then, one evening a few weeks ago, Steve had hoped to curtail that absurdity by watching it with her at his place. Though he would say the same about any night he had the privilege of spending with Jenna, that one in particular held such value to him that the fact that it only exacerbated the presence of the cat swordsman in his mind didn’t matter much. Jenna had him in stitches most of the night, taking every possible opportunity to use the phrases “that’s one hairy pussy” and “that pussy is so wet”. Steve returned the favor later that night by spilling a can of Coke on himself.
Guided by Jenna’s confident movements, they darted towards the character and she began to search for somebody willing to take their picture. Being in a photograph with her, especially one of this nature, was something Steve relished. However, he otherwise despised having his picture taken. Steve would claim that there had never been a good picture taken of him, a feeling which Jenna had previously echoed in relation to herself, and his dissatisfaction with his own photogenics was not entirely unfounded. His terribly awkward smile was, somehow, a downgrade from his typical facial asymmetries, which he’d hidden for the duration of his teenage years with long, dark hair. There was not a photo in existence in which Steve’s smile did not seem forced. Perhaps he hadn’t gotten enough practice.
Jenna’s disdain for being photographed was significantly less convincing. She was blessed with both impressive ruggedness and delicate beauty, a combination which had humbled Steve since the first time he laid eyes on her and every time since. Her silky, brown hair fell contiguously along the sides of her pretty, but tranquil face. Anybody would say that she had a very bright smile. Steve would say (to himself) that her smile could be ninety-three billion miles away and still provide light for an entire planet.
Nevertheless, the picture of the two flanking the suited man would be taken by a happy, young couple who Jenna had entrusted with her phone. After thanking them and the man in the Puss-In-Boots suit, her and Steve continued walking through the droves of people until they came to 49th street, which serves as the unspoken barrier at which Time Square ends. Standing on the edge of the sidewalk, they waited patiently with masses of others for the traffic to subside. At least until Jenna muttered “Fuck this,” and ran across the street, with Steve in flabbergasted pursuit.
Excerpt from a series of text messages between Steven Haltree and Jenna Miller (May, 2012)
Steve: Heart Status = Crushed
Jenna: We’re going to get dressed up and go see Robin Hood live, so your Heart Status better equal ecstatic.
“And then he says ‘I think you need some more burnt sienna’. He’s such a pretentious prick.” Jenna had just finished explaining to Steve her burgeoning hatred for a mutual acquaintance as they entered the tension threshold of their slingshot path through the city. The FAO Schwartz toy store is a delightful location, and one in which Steve felt far more comfortable. If there was anything he knew he could do admirably, it was act like a child.
After strolling through the entrance and infiltrating deep into a ground floor section dedicated to various candies, Steve’s attention was grasped by a display of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Jelly Beans. He snagged a box, and stored it in his pocket for safe keeping until the time came to pay for it.
“These things are delicious.” Steve said more enthusiastically than he’d said anything thus far in the night. “I’m a sucker for anything that is designed to taste like vomit.”
“I love Harry Potter, Steven.” Jenna replied. “I’m the head of a Harry Potter fan club, and…
“Harry Potter is stupid. I just like this candy”.
“Your candy is stupid! You’re stupid!” Jenna made what she had dubbed her “grumpy face” which was essentially just a puffing of her cheeks paired with a lowering of her eyebrows. Steve adored the occasions on which she did this, leading him to actively seek out every opportunity to defy her, within reason. After staring at the grumpy face for a few moments, Steve turned and started toward an escalator which ascended to the second floor.
“I don’t buy it.” he proclaimed bravely as he walked away.
Jenna did not relent as she chased him onto the escalator. “How do you not buy it? How is it not grumpy? I’m so grumpy!”
“You don’t look grumpy at all. You look like a puffer fish.”
“Yeah, well, you look like an idiot.”
Steve allowed an airy chuckle to escape him as they reached the top of the escalator. The pair explored the top floor for about a half hour, the highlight being a large mat designed to look like the keys of a piano, which would play musical notes when the corresponding key was stepped on. After a group of children maybe half her age vacated, Jenna leaped on the opportunity to dance upon it, and be a spectacle for her audience.
From the sidelines, Steve watched with a tremendous smile on his face. His mind had been racing all night. Hell, it had been racing all of his life. Yet, Jenna seemed to be entirely separated from the concerns of the average human being, let alone one with the waning sanity he possessed. This instant, he was assaulted by his own questioning of prior decisions he had made on this night, as well as the multitude he had yet to make. Jenna however, had been assaulted by an undeniable urge to strut across an electric carpet.
Once that urge had been placated, Jenna glided past Steve, shooting him a look he had grown used to seeing. It said “I am the most badass person in the world and I dare you to try and say otherwise”. He wouldn’t dare. As he followed her downstairs and out of the toy store, Steve simply marveled at her in a way even he didn’t fully comprehend. He was so uncertain of the certainty he was experiencing.
Excerpt from a series of text messages between Steven Haltree and Jenna Miller (October, 2012)
Steve: I think I burned myself about a thousand times at work today.
Jenna: It’s a rough life.
Steve had made up his mind. Their next destination was the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. That was the moment where he had to do something. The terror he felt thinking about making himself vulnerable to Jenna once they stood before the tree was exceeded only by the terror of having to continue being consumed by disappointment in himself. He had only a few short blocks to gather his thoughts.
Since they had first emerged from Penn Station, Jenna had been stamping small stickers onto various objects throughout the city. These stickers were emblazoned with some kind of unintelligible writing that looked not unlike graffiti, and no bench, trashcan, or power unit was safe from their invasion. Jenna had noticed Steve’s confusion the moment she plastered her first one onto a sign sticking from the sidewalk.
“I made these a little while ago for just such an occasion. I was really angsty back then.” A slight embarrassment pervaded her tone.
“Hey, I’m almost twenty, and I’m still pretty angsty.” Steve responded.
“I wouldn’t sweat it too much.”
So, throughout the night Jenna had been placing these stickers upon anything she could find. Now, she had spotted a taller sign which she had a desire to ravish with defacement. Up on her tip-toes, she reached to her limit, stretching her arms out to reach the flat surface. Just as she did the sleeve of her coat slipped down her arm, revealing a startlingly large scar on the top of her left forearm.
Steve saw it immediately, the obvious being so impossible that he put it immediately out of his mind, and inquired genuinely.
“What happened to your arm?”
Jenna slapped the sticker onto the sign and lowered herself back down to the soles of her feet. She let out a soft breath and walked past Steve, unphased by his question.
“Let’s go.” she said flatly.
Steve had made up his mind yet again. He would not ask about the scar on Jenna’s arm. In fact, he wouldn’t even have a chance to, because just as they continued down the street, a woman that appeared to be in her mid-twenties, approached them with a stack of flyers. Both of them received with this advertisement a coupon for a pint of beer at a bar just across the street, discounted into the form of dollar drafts.
As neither of them was of drinking age, it did not even occur to Steve that going to this bar was an option. Jenna, on the other hand, was already halfway across the street, beckoning for him to follow her to the entrance of the establishment, where there stood a large and imposing bouncer. Despite his impressive stature, the guard’s voice was soft and understanding.
“Hey guys. Could I see some ID?”
Jenna looked over at Steve with a toothy grin, fully aware that she was in no way responsible for the success or failure of this endeavor, which had been entirely of her design. She watched eagerly as Steve removed his vertically inclined ID from his wallet and handed it to the bouncer.
“Not quite, buddy.”
“Yeah” Steve said, defeated. “Figured as much.”
Jenna’s unbridled laughter followed Steve down the street after their attempt to enter the bar was unsuccessful. Steve responded with little emotion.
“Could’ve told you that was gonna happen.”
“It was worth a try,” Jenna said in return, an anticipatory smile forming on her lips.
Excerpt from a series of text messages between Steven Haltree and Jenna Miller (March, 2012)
Jenna: There’s certain information I only share with a select few.
Steve: And how does one ascend to that lofty status?
Jenna: Only when they appear in my dreams.
Steve had become frighteningly conscious of the trances Jenna had been unknowingly putting him into, and this one was particularly intense. Appropriately so, because as she looked contentedly down at the ice skaters on the plaza’s large rink, Steve knew his moment was not far ahead of him. This thought pounded in his mind every second it took to fight their way through the crowds and up to the base of the massive tree which stood tall above all but the skyscrapers.
Luckily for Steve’s racing heart, Jenna immediately wanted to take a few photos. He needed the moment to gather himself. This was something very new to him, and nervousness began to creep over into his brain. Steve didn’t want to ask this girl out. Steve wasn’t trying to get her to fuck at some party. He wasn’t even planning on saying something to try and impress her. This was a girl he loved; or at least felt that he did. The outcome of what could take as little as two seconds was his entire world. There hadn’t been a second in the nearly two years he’d known her that she hadn’t been the paramount issue in his life. Not a day had passed where she wasn’t the first thing he thought about when he woke up, the last thing he thought about when he went to sleep, and the dominant subject of his thoughts for every second in between. This was everything.
Steve continued attempting to bash his way through every mental wall that was put before him as Jenna turned to face him. How do you say something like that? How do you tell someone, who as far as you know has no understanding of your feelings for them, that they are the most important thing in the world to you? What do you say? How do you say it? You don’t, and Steve didn’t.
Jenna looked persistently at Steve, and when he returned the gaze he uttered the only words he could muster.
“You ready to head back?”
“Yeah”, she replied with a noticeable exhalation. “I suppose I am, Steven.”
Excerpt from a series of text messages between Steven Haltree and Jenna Miller (January, 2012)
Steve: I’m not sure. My head is killing me.
Jenna: I’ll pray to Jesus for you. Just kidding, Jesus isn’t real. But if he was, I’m sure he’d be into anal.
Steve: …I haven’t the slightest idea of how to mount a response to that.
Fear and inaction had impeded Steve’s capabilities in being a normal and happy human being throughout his entire life. He was terrified of himself and what others would see if he allowed them to a glimpse of the person he saw. So he hid, loneliness became the status quo, and what could have been, even would have been, would at best be what should have been. This time was different though.
Steve had heard once that you’re not crazy if you know you’re crazy. That provided him with little comfort as he walked half-heartedly alongside Jenna, speaking in insincere pleasantness. He was pissed off. Steve did know he was crazy, or at least that something had been very wrong with him for a long time, but this was the first time he felt like something had actually been stolen from him. Steve didn’t know why, but he had denied himself happiness yet again. He had every intention of making himself pay once he returned home that night.
Only a few blocks from Penn Station, where the eventual abandonment of Steve’s plans had seemed completely impossible, the duo meandered up to an art stand Jenna had spotted. It was an unimpressive vendor run by an older couple. For sale was a collection of strange photographs, some in color and others in black and white. All of the photos seemed to be of oddities the couple must have happened upon in their travels, as they depicted various restaurants, beautiful landscapes, as well as pictures of random cars and bridges.
Steve was too exhausted with himself to feign interest, so he distanced himself from Jenna by scanning some of the pictures on the other side of the stand. Lost in an ocean of downtrodden thoughts, his eyes moved over the photos without truly seeing them until Jenna called to him.
“This is it!” she exclaimed as if she’d just found the Ark of the Covenant. “It’s perfect.”
She continued as Steve made his way over to the photograph, which contained the image of a green street sign labeled “Gay Road,” with a large, white arrow pointing to the right.
“My friend recently came out as a lesbian. Her birthday is in a few weeks and I’ve been looking for the perfect present. This is it.”
As Jenna paid for the picture, Steve inquired about what she would have bought for her friend had they not ended up finding this incredibly blunt joke that would eventually be turned into a gift.
She responded, “I was just going to get her a box of chocolate and cover it with a small piece of carpet.”
It was a pretty funny joke, but what it gave to Steve was of far more worth to him than a few laughs, which he also ascertained from it. It gave him clarity, and by proxy, comfort. Through its vulgarity, Steve understood where he could find his confidence. If she could do it, why couldn’t he? Perhaps he could still salvage his mental well-being.
The train on which Steve and Jenna now traveled was very different from the one which had brought them to New York. Rather than the initial trip’s polyester booths, this one had small rows of three seats, and these rows were packed tightly into claustrophobic cars which were apparently intended to hold way more people than the room’s logistics would imply. Windows covered the vast majority of the walls rather than being small portholes through which passengers could gaze. There were no storage units and all luggage and personal belongings were relegated to the floor at each passenger’s feet.
“This is the least comfortable train I’ve ever been on,” Jenna said in exhaustion. She was growing very tired and the uncomfortable plastic seating wasn’t doing much to lull her to sleep. Her head rolled onto her left shoulder and she looked lazily over at Steve who was staring down at his shoes, equally as unenthused. He lifted his head and turned to her, smiling directly at her for possibly the first time. What did he have to lose at this point?
“Well, let’s try to fix that.” Steve pulled off his heavy jacket and draped it over Jenna and himself, fully ensconcing her while barely covering his own waist. The box of jelly beans, now stolen goods, flipped around inside one of the jacket’s pockets. He slid his arm behind her and pulled her gently towards him, relieving her back of the harsh seats. She leaned on him with immediate willingness, her left cheek falling not quite flush against his chest.
“I’m gonna sleep for a bit, Steven”, she whispered. “See ya when we get there.”
“O.K.,” was all he could muster in response.
One would think that having the girl which got Steve through his days resting upon him would excite him beyond belief, and it did, though not in the way he’d expected. Her soft hair licked at his chin, and he smelled a light, homely aroma coming from it. In the grasp of his right arm, she was completely relaxed. Yet, these things left Steve’s mind immediately as he attempted to evaluate every possible avenue he could go down from here. He hoped fully that they didn’t get back to Hamilton station in Trenton any time soon. This was among the most wonderful things he’d ever experienced, and he wanted it to last as long as possible. Additionally, he saw nothing but the return of his fears at the end of those tracks.
If Jenna had been tired on the train, she was absolutely exasperated by the time she collapsed into the seat of Steve’s unassuming, tan Camry. Steve had become aware that she was in full sleep mode when he had asked her if the heat was up to high, and she had responded with an adorable, unconscious shifting of her body weight. She was out like a light.
It was about a forty-five minute drive back to Jenna’s house from Hamilton Station, and the route was littered with stop signs and intersections lit in opposition to Steve’s favor. At every last one, he took a moment to look over at Jenna. As enamored as he had been with this girl since first meeting her, this was supposed to be an evening of truth telling, and while he had been physically closer to her than he had ever been, his silence continued to support the gulf he desired so entirely to bridge. Steve had a great many things to say to Jenna, and he took this limited gap in consequence to do so. Not wanting to rouse her, he spoke softly and honestly.
“Jenna, you couldn’t possibly understand what you mean to me, and that’s my fault. I’ve never told you. I knew the day I met you that you were special, but I couldn’t have imagined what you’d do to me over the past couple of years. It hurts something terrible to know how much I care about you, to the point that I think about you every single second of every single day, while you exist blissfully outside that Hell. Nothing in the world is more important to me than your happiness, and I desperately want to be the one to give you that. I’m in love with you.”
Jenna lay motionlessly in the passenger seat, dreaming for the remainder of the ride.
Jenna finally stirred when the car came to a less than graceful halt in front of her house. Steve, now back within the confines of his heavy jacket, walked around the car to let her out and supported her exhausted form across the lawn and up to her door. A decorative light hung just adjacent, illuminating the entirety of the stoop.
Jenna broke her long silence with clear enervation. “I had a lot of fun tonight. I’m glad we went.”
“Same,” Steve said in response, wrapping his arms around her for the obligatory hug that had become their customary parting of ways ceremony. Except this time, Steve did not release Jenna. He just looked at her, and she looked back. He told himself to kiss her, and he began to, lowering his face towards her. Simultaneously, his crippling dementia told him not to, and he bailed out, opting to benignly press his forehead against hers.
Jenna giggled tacitly at this.
“It’s just a step, Steven.”
She was right. Steve scoffed at himself before gently pressing his lips against hers. He continued to kiss her for a few moments, and then pulled away, not caring how awkward his unceasing smile might be.
“You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that.” he said.
Steve drove home as gleefully as he’d felt in recent memory. He deserved what would be his first good night of sleep in a long time, and his last in an even longer time.
Excerpt from a series of text messages between Steven Haltree and Jenna Miller (Christmas Eve, 2012)
Steve: I felt like I may have royally fucked up that night.
Jenna: I kissed you back Steve. I wanted to.